If you’re having difficulties in your relationship and find yourself going round in circles and resolving nothing, the Karpman Drama Triangle may help you to get a handle on the dynamics and help you to make healthy changes.
The Drama Triangle, originally described by the psychiatrist Stephen Karpman in 1968, is a game which is frequently played (unconsciously) in relationships, often with painful consequences. It comes about as a result of strategies that each partner develops in childhood, often in response to unmet needs, abuse, or neglect.
Each player in the game has a primary starting position on the triangle, from which they get hooked into the game. Once they are on the triangle, they automatically rotate through all the positions, going completely around the triangle, sometimes in a matter of minutes, or even seconds, many times every day!
Whatever your primary position, living on the Drama Triangle creates misery and suffering. The main aim of each player is to avoid pain; however the strategies adopted only end up generating greater pain in the end. Everyone involved in triangular dynamics ends up in the victim position, feeling hurt and angry, at some point. This is a game with no winner.
The Primary Starting Positions
Rescuers need someone to rescue (the Victim) in order to feel valued, vital and important. They see themselves as good and caring, and are unaware of how they smother, control and manipulate others. They have a misguided understanding of what it is to encourage, empower and protect; they tend to be overly protective — the one who wants to “fix it”.
Rescuers usually grow up in families where their dependency needs are not acknowledged. As human beings, we tend to treat ourselves the way we were treated as children. Rescuers learn to suppress their own unmet needs and turn instead to caring for others. Caring behaviour often brings a great deal of satisfaction and reward for the Rescuer; however, the underlying hope is: “if I take care of them long enough, eventually they’ll start caring for me.” However, this rarely happens, and the resulting disappointment can send the Rescuer spiraling into the victim position of martyr: “After all I’ve done for you, this is the thanks I get?” or “No matter how much I do, it’s never enough”; or, “If you loved me, you wouldn’t treat me like this!”
Rescuers’ greatest fear is that they will end up alone. They believe that their total value comes from how much they do for others. To avoid abandonment, they therefore strive to make themselves indispensable, unaware of the dependency they are creating in the other person; the more they rescue, the less responsibility the other person takes, so the Rescuer increases the rescuing, resulting in a downward spiral towards the victim position, where they feel resentful and taken for granted.
Persecutors identify themselves primarily as victims. They are usually in complete denial about their behaviour. When you draw their attention to their blaming tactics, they justify it on the grounds of self-defence.
The Persecutor role is most often assumed by people who were physically or emotionally abused in childhood. In order to survive, they repress deep-seated feelings of worthlessness and hide their pain behind a façade of indignant wrath and uncaring detachment. Persecutors see the world as a dangerous place: “It’s a dog eat dog world out there…”, and may emulate their childhood abuser, preferring to identify with someone they see as having power and strength, rather than see themselves as a “loser”. In other words, they become perpetrators, “protecting” themselves using controlling and punishing methods in order to avoid feelings of helplessness and shame.
The Persecutor’s greatest fear is powerlessness. Because they can’t acknowledge their feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, fear and vulnerability, they project these disowned feelings onto someone they perceive as weak (the Victim). Like Rescuers, Persecutors unconsciously need a Victim in order to maintain their idea of who they are and what the world is like. Just as the Rescuer needs someone to fix, the Persecutor needs someone to blame.
It can feel very threatening for someone in a Persecutor mindset to get really honest with themselves. To do so feels like blaming themselves, which only intensifies their internal condemnation. Anger may be the only way they have of dealing with chronic depression.
Victims believe they cannot take care of themselves. They see themselves as consistently unable to handle life. We all need help and support from time to time – that’s normal. It’s only when we become convinced that we can’t take care of ourselves, believing that we are frail, powerless or defective, that we move into the Victim role which keeps us dependent on others.
Victims define themselves as intrinsically defective or “wrong” and incapable. They deny both their problem-solving abilities and their potential for personal power, and see themselves as inept at handling life. Their greatest fear is that they won’t make it, so they are constantly on the lookout for someone stronger or more capable to take care of them. However, they often feel highly resentful towards those on whom they depend. As much as they insist on being taken care of by their primary rescuers, they do not like to be reminded of their shortcomings.
The very thing a Rescuer seeks – validation and appreciation – is the thing Victims most resent giving, as it reminds them of their own perceived deficiencies. Victims eventually get tired of being in the one-down position and begin to find ways to feel equal, usually by moving into the Persecutor role. This often comes in the form of sabotaging the efforts made to rescue them, often through passive-aggressive behavior. The way this works is that the Rescuer offers a solution to a problem, and the Starting Gate Victim responds with “Yes, but that won’t work because…”. The Victim then proceeds to “yes, but” all suggestions, as the Rescuer tries, in vain, to come up with a solution. They are determined to prove that their problem is unsolvable, thus stumping the Rescuer, leaving them to feel as impotent as the Victim innately feels.
Victims live in a perpetual shame spiral, often leading to self abuse. Abuse of drugs, alcohol and food, gambling and out of control spending are just a few of the self-defeating behaviors practised by Victims. Victims live in a vortex of shame of their own making, and this cloud of defectiveness becomes their total identity.
Getting off the Triangle
Wherever you are on the triangle, the way to get off it is to get totally honest with yourself, become aware of the role you play, and take responsibility.
A Rescuer needs to acknowledge and take responsibility for his own unmet needs, learn to take care of himself and allow others to take responsibility for their own choices.
A Persecutor needs to own and learn to soothe his fears of powerlessness and inferiority and acknowledge that others aren’t necessarily the “enemy” he perceives them to be. He needs to take responsibility for the impact of his behaviour on others and begin to see himself and others as being of equal value. Because it is so difficult for a Persecutor to face his deepest fears, it often takes a crisis for him to be able to do this.
The Victim has to learn to assume responsibility and initiate self-care, rather than look outside of himself for a saviour. He must challenge the ingrained belief that he can’t take care of himself, and acknowledge his problem solving and leadership capabilities.
It is not always easy to get off the drama triangle, but the end result of greater peace and satisfying, close and productive relationships is well worth the effort.